Prison Babies

In Children and Youth, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice / Prison Reform on March 1, 2007 at 7:06 pm

West Virginia is considering whether or not it should join the ranks of States that have programs for incarcerated mothers of infants to be able to care for their babies while in prison.

According to the West Virginia Gazette:

Some newborns could spend the first 18 months of their lives behind bars in West Virginia, under a bill passed by the Senate.

The idea of allowing female inmates to live with their infants in special prison housing is to encourage such a strong bond between mother and child that the mothers clean up their acts to avoid returning to prison.

Still, prison nurseries are rare. West Virginia would become only the sixth state to offer such a service. But as the national female prison population grows at record rates, experts say, other states will soon be looking at similar plans.

States that already have prison nurseries — New York, Ohio, Nebraska, California and Washington — tout reduced recidivism rates among their inmates.

In New York, the recidivism rate among women who raised their babies in prison between 1997 and 2001 was less than half what it was among the general female prison population, according to a study by the New York Department of Correctional Services.

“We really believe in the value of the program,” said spokeswoman Linda Foglia. “You’re going to have better behavior so you can continue to have that relationship with that baby.”

The numbers in Ohio, which started its prison nursery in 2001, have been even more promising, according to Elizabeth Wright, assistant to the warden at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. Of the 123 women who have completed the program, only eight have been convicted of subsequent felonies, a recidivism rate of 6.5 percent, compared to 30 percent in the general population.

In West Virginia, the bill before the House of Delegates would allow women to keep their newborns with them in a minimum-security unit at the Lakin Correctional Center for Women near Point Pleasant. Like almost all the other prison nursery programs, only nonviolent offenders serving short sentences would be eligible.

Women could have their newborns with them for up to 18 months. If the mother’s sentence runs longer, the baby would be placed with family or social services.

The women and their children would live in one of three specially designed units already built at Lakin for minimum-security inmates. The units have bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and laundry area, and can be occupied by other prisoners if there aren’t enough pregnant inmates to fill them……

While I do strongly believe in the importance of the bond between mother and child, as well as the life changing effects that the bond can have, I have some questions to raise about this program.

1) Considering the large amount of physical and emotional disease and problems that many prisoners face, what is being done to ensure a safe environment for the babies? Given the track records tht prisons have in these areas, I don’t know that i would trust their discretion in creating baby development-friendly environments.

2) Considering the above mentioned stresses related to prison life, how does the added stress of caring for and raising a child effect the psychology of the mothers?

3) How does the stress of prison life compare to the emotional stress of a child being separated from its mother (both long term and short term) on both the child and mother?

These are just some questions that i came up with off the top of my head.  I’m sure there are many more.  I can definitely see the positive potential for a program like this, but at the same time i don’t know that I trust the U.S. prison system to pull it off in a good way.


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